Not just cars for Earnhardt

Auto racing: Dale Jr. has his father's talent and love of the sport, but off the track, he's his own man.

February 13, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - For a race-car driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has always seemed to travel a different road, a fact his late father, seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, was always playfully carping about.

The father's son will jump into his car and take off on a road trip into unfamiliar country with nothing more than a compass. He'll play video games late into the night, hang out with friends and listen to loud music until the dawn's early light.

But tomorrow, he will be in his driver's uniform and seated in his Budweiser Chevrolet, ready to compete in his half of the Gatorade twin 125-mile qualifying races to secure a starting spot in Sunday's Daytona 500.

"I might not represent the average mold for a NASCAR driver," he said. "I just like being myself. I get a lot of flak from my sponsor for not having their logo all over my back and my shoulders and my head. But I think just walking around in a pair of adidas is pretty cool."

It was because of Earnhardt's free-spirited attitude that he so impressed people last season. Not by the way he drove his race car - everyone knew he could drive a race car. But by the incredibly mature way in which he handled the death of his father.

On the last lap of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, Dale Earnhardt was running third, behind his son and his friend, eventual winner Michael Waltrip, and was coming up on the final turn when he crashed into the concrete wall at Daytona International Speedway and died.

If Earnhardt Jr, had decided to take the year off, no one would have blinked. Or if he had acted like a jerk, no one would have been surprised. But the 27-year-old, fun-loving son not only kept racing, but also handled his father's death with grace and dignity.

Despite his emotions, he charged through a season in which he finished eighth in the Winston Cup points standings and came to enjoy every week of competition.

"For some reason, last year was a whole lot more fun than my rookie season," Earnhardt said. "I don't know how to explain it. ... My rookie season was just riddled with a little bit too much - a little too much pressure. There was a lot of talk and a lot of poor finishes and a lot of bickering between me and my teammates.

"Losing my father definitely changed my outlook a little bit. ... I get such a thrill from racing and I enjoy it so much. It's well worth it to me, well worth the risk of losing your life or suffering some kind of serious injury.

"You never think about that when you're driving race cars. You never think about that when you're walking through the garage. You never think about that when you're sitting at home watching TV on the couch. But it's definitely there. It's definitely a part of it."

Since arriving here Thursday, Earnhardt has attended the unveiling of a statue in honor of his father outside Turn 4, taken part in qualifying, showed in the Budweiser Shootout Sunday that he is a threat to win the race and otherwise gone confidently about his business.

"There are five or 10 or us that are about the same on the race track," Earnhardt said. "If we're in the mix, we'll have an opportunity to win late in the race. But anything can happen. I plan to be around for another 10 or 15 years to have some more opportunities at it, so I'm not putting that much pressure on myself that this is the only chance I have."

Earnhardt is happy-go-lucky by nature. He does not dwell on the negative. But he does say he wants to win a championship.

"There's more to me, I think, professionally than just magazine covers and kick-ass sponsors and fun times," said the man who has been interviewed by Jay Leno, David Letterman and Playboy, among others.

"Not that there needs to be a choice. I don't feel pressure, as if there's two sides of the fence. ... I like having fun, and I do it responsibly. I know when I need to straighten [myself] up because I got to race.

"I want to win championships, and I like winning races. But there's something to be said about having that asterisk beside your name for the rest of your life and the rest of the time in the books that says you were champion sometime in your life. So that's something I'd like to be a part of.

"I can see that I have a great opportunity to really take it to several levels and to be somebody that maybe is in the same sentence with several of the greats in the sport down the road. So I need to win some championships."

He said he doesn't know if one of those championships will come this season, but if he can get the first five to 10 races out of the way and be in the top 10 or 15, he has a fighting chance.

"If we can come out of the blocks real good and consistent and not try too hard," he said, "and be somewhere toward the front and not have to climb up through the points like we did last year, we'll have a better shot at it."

Earnhardt looks to the future, not to the past. But that's not to say he hasn't thought about his father's death and seemingly come to terms with it.

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